Jory MacKay
Jory is a writer, content strategist and award-winning editor of the Unsplash Book. He contributes to Inc., Fast Company, Quartz, and more.
December 04, 2019 · 14 min read

What makes a great project manager? The 10 most crucial project management skills for 2019 (and how to develop them)

What makes a great project manager? The 10 most crucial project management skills for 2019 (and how to develop them)

What makes a truly great project manager? Is it being organized? Driven and motivated? A great communicator? All of the above and more. There’s no single project management skill that’s more important than the others because, at its core, project management isn’t a single job.

At best, you could say that project management is a combination of several not-so-easy jobs done concurrently. And to be successful at all these not-so-easy jobs, there’s a wide range of project management skills you need to master.

While some of the most important project management skills are pretty obvious—like planning, communicating, and staying organized—others are more nuanced, peculiar, and downright mysterious. It’s why the best project managers seem to just have something others don’t.

So what project management skills does it take to become a truly great project manager in 2019 (and beyond)? Let’s find out.

What do project managers do? The answer isn’t as simple as you think.

Ask a random person on the street what a project manager does and you’ll probably get a variation of the same answer (or a pretty weird look as they speed walk away from you).

From the outside, a project manager spends their days initiating, planning, running projects. That means communicating with their team and project stakeholders, setting realistic requirements, running meetings, assigning tasks, and managing time, budgets, and expectations.

To do this, they use project management tools (like Planio!) to keep their teams organized, document lessons learned, and manage tasks from start to finish.

And while that sounds like a lot of work, it’s barely scratching the surface.

What we’ve just covered is, at best, only part of the technical side of project management. And just because you know the steps of the software development lifecycle or how to write a statement of work doesn’t mean you can successfully manage a project.

As a project manager, your raw materials are people. And unlike working with steel, wood, or even code, it’s impossible to know what you’re going to get out of your team each day. People change. Relationships sour. And factors completely out of your control suddenly have a huge impact on how your project moves forward.

Technical training in project management doesn’t set you up for all the nuanced situations you’ll experience throughout your career. That’s why the essential project management skills don’t always seem obvious. They’re soft skills as much as the hard ones you were trained on.

Balancing between the soft and hard project management skills isn’t always easy. But if you follow the steps below, you’ll be able to start.

The 10 most crucial project management skills for 2019 (and how to build them)

As we’ve explained, the essential project management skills include the technical ones you’d expect (like business and management) as well as more “soft” skills like relationship management, communication, and motivation.

And while these two types of project management skills might seem worlds apart, they’re actually deeply intertwined with each other.

Your ability to communicate, make smart decisions, and think critically will directly impact how you plan, run, and complete projects. So which skills are most important and will help you level up from good project manager to project master?

Here’s what to focus on:

1. Leadership

Project managers don’t sit on the sideline. While your teammates are off coding, designing, and ticking off items from their task list, you’re guiding, supporting, and freeing them from roadblocks. The best project managers can flip between planning sprints to mediating a disagreement or motivating a team that has hit a slump in a heartbeat.

Project leadership is a multi-faceted skill that’s hard to give a single definition. Is it simply giving directions? Is it pumping up your team when they’re hitting a lack of motivation? Or is it, as former U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower said:

Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.

As a project management skill, leadership is all of those and more. It’s the ability to guide both projects and people, especially when things don’t go as planned. Maybe most importantly, project leadership is about more than just short-term success. It’s about building the foundation for continuing future successes.

How to develop your project leadership skills

Building your project leadership skills starts with understanding what leadership involves. According to a study by the Project Management Institute, the most important leadership skills for project managers to focus on include:

If people anywhere are to willingly follow someone—whether it be into battle or into the boardroom, the front office or the front lines—they first want to assure themselves that the person is worthy of their trust.

2. Communication

Between emails, calls, updates, meetings, and documenting progress, it can sometimes feel like all you do as a project manager is to communicate.

Project managers need to be master communicators. You need to be able to clearly explain goals and tasks to people on your team as well as give status updates to stakeholders and management. Unfortunately, this isn’t always easy.

A 2016 Harvard Business Review article found that 69% of managers say they’re uncomfortable communicating with employees. Yet when you’re unable to speak candidly and openly with your team, you’re opening yourself up to all sorts of misunderstandings and wasted time and effort.

How to become a better communicator

As a project management skill, communication starts with understanding and working with your team’s different communication styles. More than simply relaying messages, great project managers understand the importance of context, tone, and body language when it comes to communicating.

Is the person you’re speaking to more analytical? If so, you want to provide details and clear explanations and avoid responding in an overly emotional way (i.e. use “I know” or “I think” rather than “I feel”).

Maybe they’re more intuitive. In which case, you should stick to the big picture and try not to get too bogged down in the details (at least not right away).

Or do they have a more functional communication style? If so, focus on processes and detailed step-by-step plans and avoid rushing them into a decision.

Ultimately, this comes down to being a good listener. As we wrote in our guide on How to Navigate Different Communication Styles, if you want to actually hear your team, you need to:

  1. Suspend your biases. This means everything from the topic to the speaker’s appearance, accent, or prior actions.
  2. Quiet your mind by focusing on what’s being said instead of thinking about your response. One great way to do this is to summarize and repeat what the other person is saying back to them. This not only helps show them you’re truly listening to them but also helps you focus on what’s being said.
  3. Encourage the speaker to continue sharing information by asking open-ended follow-up questions.

3. Planning

At the core, project managers are master planners. They look at a big, audacious business goal, and understand how to break it down into manageable tasks that can be completed in a realistic timeline.

There are a few different aspects to project planning, however.

At a minimum, you should have a deep understanding of how to scope project requirements and set timelines and budgets; the keys to assembling teams and ensuring you have the resources you need; and how to create the documentation you need to communicate progress, keep stakeholders happy and track your milestones and goals.

How to master project planning

We’ve written at length about the different aspects of project planning (See: How to Write a Scope of Work or 8 Project Proposal Essentials to get Manager Buy-In). However, the best project managers understand that project planning is essentially prioritization.

Few teams fail because they don’t have enough good ideas. Instead, an essential project management skill is to be able to highlight and prioritize the right ideas and features. Where this gets difficult is when people become personally attached to their ideas.

Every single feature or idea reflects someone’s hard work and opinion. And this only gets even more complicated when you’re dealing with stakeholders with different levels of investment and control over a project.

As a project manager, you need to take control of the planning process by keeping your company’s larger vision clearly in focus. As Richard Banfield, author of Product Leadership: How Top Product Managers Launch Awesome Products and Build Successful Teams, writes:

If the team doesn’t agree on the big picture, then they certainly won’t agree on a single feature.

Instead of bickering about individual features, learn to become a collaborative leader—someone who drives people from different teams and backgrounds towards a common goal.

4. Scheduling

The best leaders don’t just rely on their gut, they rely on a clear process and framework to guide them. As a project manager, this mostly comes from your schedule. Breaking tasks down into a realistic timeline and then ensuring you stick to that schedule is at the heart of your job. The better you can become at creating project schedules, the more confident you’ll become in all your other skills.

Luckily, there are tons of methodologies and tools available that can help you stay organized and on track (such as project management tools like Planio!)

How to keep a project on schedule

Schedules need to be visible in order to be followed. And one of the best tools for visualizing your project’s schedule is to use Gantt Charts.

Gantt Chart

A Gantt Chart is a visual representation of tasks over time that is incredibly useful for planning and monitoring projects of almost any size and complexity. With a Gantt Chart you can quickly see:

Of course, there are other tools you can use to get this same level of visibility. But the core idea is the same. To master scheduling as a project manager, you can’t just look at a timeline and slot in tasks. You have to be able to understand dependencies, individual workloads, and highlight risks and resource overload so you can adjust your schedule on the fly.

5. Time management

Scheduling is all about setting an ideal path to project completion. But time management is what keeps you on that path each day. We only have so many hours we can work in a day. And the more efficient you and your team are, the more likely you are to stick to your schedule and hit your goals.

Some studies show that most modern workers spend up to 80% of their day on collaborative activities like responding to emails, in meetings, or on the phone leaving little time for the core work that makes real progress on your project.

As a project manager, it’s your job to not only manage your own time as efficiently as possible but also to insulate your team from all the distractions and interrupts that chip away at their focus.

Remember, you can’t give what you don’t have. If you want your team to do their best work, you need to master your personal time management skills first.

How to give your team more time

When you’re deep into a project, it’s easy to forget that everything you ask your team to do takes time. Yet, the best project managers stay connected between project needs and what’s realistic for their team by following a few steps:

6. Task management

You’re not just managing time, however. You’re also managing tasks. Each moving part of the project needs to be documented, updated, and assigned in order to keep everyone on track and motivated.

In its most basic form, task management is the process of managing a task through its life cycle—from planning, testing, and tracking to reporting the outcome.

When you’re working with a team, proper task management is the foundation for productive days. Not only does it help everyone on your team stay in-sync, productive, and on schedule. But more importantly, task management lets you see progress. And like Newton’s first law of motion, once your team is moving, it’s easier to keep them going.

How to break down massive projects into manageable tasks

Task management is all about momentum. If your team is faced with massive tasks or poorly scoped milestones, they’re going to quickly lose motivation and momentum.

Instead, when Harvard researchers Teresa Amabile and Steven J. Kramer looked at all the things that make great teams succeed, they found that “of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during the workday, the single most important is making progress on meaningful work.”

This means capturing all of the tasks your team needs to do and then breaking them down into small pieces they can make progress on each day. Talk to your team to make sure you haven’t missed any tasks or steps and then break “mini-projects” down into the smallest action that needs to be taken to make progress.

Planio Basic issue fields

Each of these individual tasks should have enough details that anyone looking at them knows what needs to be done, how important it is, when it’s due, and the estimated time it should take. You can do this in a task management software like Planio:

Project Management fields

7. Risk mitigation

There’s a famous quote from Mike Tyson that says:

“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

Every project comes with a certain level of risk. And it’s your job to make sure you see those issues before they can cause serious damage. While it’s impossible to see every potential issue upfront, the more you’re able to create a process for handling bumps in the road the better equipped you’ll be.

How to recognize, understand, and mitigate project risks

One of the most important project management skills you can build is to be able to see the worst-case scenarios. If you can predict potential issues and create solutions for them before they happen, your potential for project success goes through the roof.

In practice, risk mitigation comes down to understanding your team’s unique skill set (or missing pieces), seeing the bigger picture, and learning from past experiences. And while most of this comes with time and experience, there are some common risk areas you should be aware of:

Those are just a few of the areas you should be thinking about as you try to mitigate project risk. For each, analyze their potential impact and create a response and monitoring plan so that you don’t get caught off guard.

8. Decision-making

How can you prioritize features, assign tasks, negotiate with stakeholders, and shift priorities during a project if you don’t know how to make proper decisions?

Good decision making

As Farnam Street’s Shane Parrish puts it, "Good decisions don't ensure success but bad ones almost always ensure failure."

Your team will be looking to you to set the direction of the project and guide them as they work. And in order to do that, you need to be confident in your decision-making process.

How to make smarter decisions

There’s not enough space here to dive deep into the complex world of decision making. But as a project manager, you need to be keenly aware of the issues and biases that creep into your decision-making process and how to work around them.

Look out for things like:

9. Quality management

You’re not just responsible for hitting the finish line with your project, but also doing so in the best way possible. Quality management is a skill that often gets overlooked for project managers who are too focused on just getting through each day.

Instead, you need to be able to periodically bring your head above water and look at the bigger picture. Are you still on track to hit the goals and expectations of this project? Your schedule might be your guiding light. But no one will care that you stuck to it if the results are second-rate.

How to manage your team’s quality vs. quantity of work

One of the things that set great project managers apart from good ones is their ability to know what “success” means. Knowing what to measure isn’t just about looking back at the end of the project and saying you hit your goals. It’s also about knowing what to measure during the project to make sure you’re on track to hit them.

Agreeing on quality thresholds or metrics at the start means you’ll be avoiding some nasty surprises later on. At a minimum, you should make sure to:

10. Critical thinking

Lastly, as a project manager, you need to learn to quiet your knee-jerk reactions and think critically about your choices. While it’s totally fine to be in auto-pilot some of the time, you can’t rely on it to get through a project.

Thinking critically simply means being objective when you analyze or evaluate an issue. Instead of relying on emotions or received knowledge, you’re letting yourself be impartial. In the end, the best decision is what’s best for the project. And thinking critically helps keep you on that path.

How to shift from surface-level thoughts to critical thinking

Even if you think you’ve mastered all of the above project management skills, there are still opportunities to expand how you think. This comes down to a number of factors.

First, you need to have a level of subject matter expertise. In order to lead, you need to understand the tools and techniques available to you. While it’s easy to rest on your laurels after a couple of successful projects, the best project managers are continually looking for ways to better themselves.

Next, you need to make time to continually reflect on and learn from your past experiences. Great project managers don’t just react. They take time to be objective, reflect on past experiences, and apply their best judgment to each situation.

Lastly, you need to maintain an openness to new ideas, processes, and the truth that you might, in fact, be wrong. Thinking critically means accepting that project management is something you’ll never truly “master.” As Mark Twain famously wrote:

It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.

Don’t discount the soft skills of project management

It’s easy to get hung up on the “hard” project management skills. But that’s usually just because they’re easier to learn. A process or workflow is mostly straightforward and set in stone. And while mastering them is an important part of your job, it’s not even close to your only responsibility.

In the end, what separates the “great” from the “good” project manager is the ability to master the people you work with by learning how to communicate, support, and empower them to do their best work every single day.